Leadership

Why Giving Feedback May Not Be Enough

By / Sep 29, 2019 (fizkes/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Leaders are encouraged to deliver feedback when they should dispense advice, researchers say. The hard part: being the kind of leader people trust to come to for advice.

The performance review, as I’ve pointed out a few times around here, is a problematic thing. At best, it’s a necessary evil (you have to build compensation decisions around something); at worst, they’re constricting once-a-year evaluations that feel like busywork for leader and employee alike.

If you ask someone for advice, they will be more likely to think forward to future opportunities to improve.

Luckily, many organizations—including associations—are taking more sophisticated approaches to reviews, making them more iterative and more considerate of professional development needs. But leaders can be hesitant to deliver regular feedback to employees—which, in turn, can make employees hesitant to solicit it.

Part of the problem may be embedded in that word: feedback. A group of Harvard Business School researchers recently explored whether there’s a distinction between asking for “feedback” or “advice.” And it turns out there’s quite a bit. In a summary of their research for Harvard Business Review, they wrote that in an exercise involving a job application letter, “those who provided feedback tended to give vague, generally praising comments…. However, when asked to give advice on the same application letter, people offered more critical and actionable input.”

What makes feedback so different from advice? The two words aren’t strictly synonymous. The researchers explain that the former implies broader evaluation, which leads to more general and holistic comments. But when it comes to advice, “people focus less on evaluation and more on possible future actions…. If you ask someone for advice, they will be more likely to think forward to future opportunities to improve rather than backwards to the things you have done, which you can no longer change.”

The English major in me finds this research appealing, but I do think it has powerful implications for how association execs can lead their teams. A lack of specificity about goals can be demoralizing in an organization, and leaders always do well to create contexts where they can be specific. “One of the weakest areas of leadership in every organization—and this is across industries, not just associations—is the ability to define success with precision,” association consultant Jamie Notter told me earlier this year. An advice-oriented mindset—one where a leader is focused on the future and shares details about it—can provide that precision.

There’s a catch, though, that’s related to organizational culture. Feedback is the sort of thing a boss or a teacher gives you; advice is the sort of thing you get from a friend or a confidante. So if you want to position yourself as an advice giver and not just a deliverer of feedback, you may have to step up your game to be the kind of leader people trust enough to ask for advice. The Harvard researchers don’t have specific guidance to offer on that point, but experts have noted that success often starts with a leader making a conscious effort to better understand their employees’ communication styles.

You may learn, in that process, that feedback isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Newer employees, or those who find specific criticisms demotivating (at least at first), can benefit from more general feedback, the Harvard researchers point out. But the advice-giving mindset is a helpful one to cultivate. It compels you as a leader to think about what your organization’s overall goals are and how you might frame that as specific gaps to be addressed, and it trains you to think about the communication styles of the people you lead. And that, in itself, can help make performance evaluations better than the tick-box exercises that everybody is probably complaining about—including your employees.

Have you seen a distinction between giving feedback and giving advice in your leadership roles? Share your experiences in the comments.

Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. More »

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